Japan tourism still suffering one year on from quake

Kyoto, Japan

Japan's tourism industry is still hurting a year after the tsunami and nuclear disaster, international industry officials said, warning business was only likely to get fully back on track next year.

Japan saw a 28-percent fall in the number of visitors arriving in the country in 2011 compared with a year earlier, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) said, predicting a full recovery by mid-2012.

But, amid posters stating "Japan, Rising Again. Thank you for Your Support", Japanese travel industry representatives at the ITB Berlin tourism fair, one of the top industry gatherings, were more cautious.

Hiromi Waldenberger, a Tokyo city tourism representative for the German market, said hopes were now pinned on next spring for the number of visitors to the city returning to pre-March 2011 levels.

"We hope for the next cherry blossom season, so March-April 2013... I think that's realistic," she said.

"But we have to work for it. The image of Japan is still quite damaged," she said at the fair where she first heard news last year of the devastating quake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

From April until next March, the Japan Tourism Agency is spending about five billion yen (46 million euros, $60 million) to promote the country, Takuo Nagano, marketing specialist for Europe, Americas and Oceania at the Japan National Tourism Organisation, said.

While about half is destined to help get the tourism infrastructure in the quake-damaged Tohoku region back on its feet, the rest will help promote Japan in its 13 biggest markets, he said.

Tourism representatives who spoke to AFP said visitors largely shunned Japan immediately after last year's earthquake set off a tsunami that left more than 19,000 people dead in the country's worst post-World War II disaster.

"It was very slow after the tsunami, almost all the tourists cancelled," said Kazu Iizuka, a sales manager for the Nippon Travel Agency.

Business recovered slightly from October but despite hopes it would have caught up by next month to about half its 2010 level, it was still only at about 30 percent, he said.

Kyoto, meanwhile, used to receive about 2.3 million visitors annually before the accident, 70 percent of whom came from Europe, America, Australia or New Zealand, Rie Doi, of the city's tourism promotion division, said.

Although she did not have figures for the economic loss due to the drop in foreign visitors, she said they used to spend on average between 50,000 yen (463 euros, $613) and 60,000 yen per stay.

She said that tourism to Kyoto would return to normal "hopefully" next year, although signs of a recovery had already begun in late 2011.

In Tokyo, on the other hand, German tourists began to return last July after a more than 60-percent drop immediately after the accident, Waldenberger said.

"It's getting better but has not at all reached the prior level. We actually hoped that mid-2012 the situation would be, maybe not fully, but mostly, recovered again.

"But it doesn't look like it. It takes a bit more time."

The accident had dashed expectations that 2011 would be a bumper year for German tourists to Japan, she said.

Waldenberger explained that Japan had become popular partly due to the film "Cherry Blossoms" by Germany's Doris Doerrie, as well as a result of official events laid on to mark 150 years of German-Japanese friendship.

The ITB travel trade show, with 10,644 exhibitors from 187 countries, runs until March 11.